The Bible has some pretty harsh things to say about idol worship:
I will lay the corpses of the Israelites in front of their idols and scatter your bones around your altars. – Ezekiel 6:5
All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. –Isaiah 44:9
Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they make offerings, but they cannot save them in the time of their trouble. – Jeremiah 11:12
And of course, there is the direct commandment against idolatry in the Torah:
You are not to have any other gods before my Presence. You are not to make yourself a carved-image or any figure that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the earth; you are not to bow down to them, you are not to serve them, for I the Eternal you God am a jealous God. – Exodus 20:3-5
So sometimes visitors are surprised to attend services in a synagogue and see Jews carrying the Torah with reverence, touching it, and even touching it and then kissing their fingers. Isn’t that idolatry?
I like what my friend Rabbi David J. Cooper has written about this: “…if it does seem like idolatry to you, you should definitely not kiss the Torah.” If any custom or even a mitzvah feels wrong to you, don’t do it. Wait, study, and talk with a teacher that you trust. If it continues to feel wrong, trust your conscience.
Many people, myself included, kiss the Torah. I also touch the mezuzah when I go through a doorway. Here are two things to know about this practice:
Kissing any religious object (the Torah, a mezuzah, the fringes on a tallit) is not an obligation. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to do it. It is a practice that is meaningful to some Jews and not to others.
There are many reasons for this kissing. If you ask four Jews “why kiss?” you will probably get at least five answers.
Why do I kiss the Torah when it passes by me? I kiss it out of love and reverence for what it represents. To me, it represents the centuries of Jewish striving towards holiness, centuries of struggling with a book that is passed through imperfect human hands. The Torah itself is not holy; it is a signpost that points towards holiness. When I touch it and kiss my fingers, I remind myself that it is my compass, pointing towards that which I seek.
Other Jews will have other answers. If you are Jewish, dear reader, what do you do when the Torah passes by you during the service? Do you kiss it? Why or why not?
For more about the synagogue service and how to get the most out of a service without understanding any Hebrew, check out these articles:
What Goes On in a Jewish Service? (Especially for Beginners)
Lost in the Service? How to get the most out of a service even if you don’t understand Hebrew.
Dancing with the Rabbis An article about the movements you see people make in the service.
What Vestments Do Rabbis Wear? You will see unusual clothing on some people. Here’s a guide to that.
What is a Machzor? It’s the prayer book for High Holy Days. Read this if your first service will be a High Holy Day service.
What’s a Chumash? What’s a Siddur? An article about the books we use in the service.
27 thoughts on “Kissing the Torah: Idolatry?”
During the Torah procession, I try to not leave it out of my sight and if it comes near me, I will touch it with my tsitsit since I started donning a talith (it took me some time to get accustomed to that more than to kiss the torah) or with the edge of my siddur (prayer book).
When I enter a place where I spot a mezuzah, I do touch it and kiss my fingers after that.
I get the exact same feeling when I do that, than when I meet and greet someone I love with a hug or an embrace. It has never felt like idolatry to me. More like respectful awareness of the love I have for what it represents.
I feel exactly the same way as Otir. Thank you for expressing it so beautifully.
Wow, I love the conversation here! You hit the nail on the head, Otir – it’s love. That’s the feeling.
It is a mutual kiss that is given and received. We kiss the Torah, we feel a return.
I like your approach. For me, kissing the Torah always felt like idolatry and I don’t treat it as a sacred object even now as an adult. But I don’t impose my attitude on others. We Jews come in many varieties of beliefs and practices. So be it.
As the Reform Jews in Israel say, “There are many ways to be Jewish!”
I grew up Orthodox and could never reach the Torah because of the distance of the womens’ section from where the scroll was being circulated. We used to kiss our fingers and hold them out — a sort of quasi-religious blown kiss. It never seemed idolatrous, rather a sign of respect at the holiness of the Torah and all it represented.
“If you ask four Jews “why kiss?” you will probably get at least five answers.”
made me actually ROFL. 🙂
I love the idea of “blowing a kiss” to the Torah! Next time I can’t reach it, that’s what I’ll do.
Ever since I started wearing tallit (20 years now) I kiss the Torah with the tzitzit, as the Torah passes by. It feels less like idolatry and more like reverence and respect. Strange, though – the bowing to it the ark, and even raising it in hagbah feels more like idol-worshiping, though I don’t think I ever thought about the distinction between the two. Is it because one is more personal, very personal, touch between me and the Torah vs. a communal “bowing down” to it? I have wondered about this very fuzzy line about reverance/idolatry for years.
I should have mentioned hagbah – the moment when the Torah is lifted high so the congregation can see where we were reading. You are not alone in feeling like that’s an iffy moment; I’ve heard others question it too. Originally it was to let the congregation see the place from which we read, but it can be misunderstood, for sure.
I bought a tallit recently as I felt that when the Torah comes to me, I would rather not use a prayer book to touch and kiss. I purchased a beautiful tallit in the Temple Sisterhood store. It makes me happy to use on Shabbos .
Anita, you got my attention here. Made me think about bowing. For me, the act of bowing is one of mindfulness, respect, and reverence. Facing the ark where the Torah is kept is arguably the most sacred spot in the sanctuary. It never occurred to me that I was bowing to something but it is,for me, in recognition and engagement with God. Thanks for sparking me to think about this!
I feel like I am touching base with all the generations of Jews when I touch the Torah with my siddur and then kiss the touch point. Interesting conversation, thank you for bringing it up, Rabbi Adar.
Thanks, Meredith, for highlighting yet another reason Jews touch the Torah!
WHAT DO WE DO WHEN PEOPLE SAY MOSES NEVER EXISTED?
Now people are saying things against the Torah, such as:
Abraham was a pimp who sold his wife/sister to an African (therefore black) Pharaoh. Moses was a mass murderer (who was so black, the black Pharaoh assumed he was his grandson).
“There is no text more barbaric than the Old Testament of the Bible–books like
Deuteronomy and Leviticus and Exodus. The Quran pales in comparison.”–Sam Harris.
Also, a new book says Moses never existed and the whole Exodus and Moses stories are myth:
What do we do?
Why don’t they carry a bible and everyone touch it and kiss it?
A Bible would not be the same. A Torah scroll is identical, as far as we are able to determine, to the scroll from which Ezra read 500 years before the common era. It unites Jews of every nation and every century.
I think we need to look at what “worship” means. This link gives Hebrew words for worship and what each one means. If we are doing these for anyone or ANYTHING besides God, I believe we are wrong. God alone deserves our worship. Yes we honor and respect His laws. But we don’t worship them.
And think about it, if so many people have an uneasy feeling and are unsure if it’s right or wrong, maybe that is the Holy Spirit trying to guide them.
We have a long standing respect for individual conscience and judgment. Your language suggests to me that you are coming at this from a Christian perspective. That’s fine, but don’t project it onto a Jewish question.
People who touch or kiss the Torah are doing so out of affection, not idolatry. My sons hug and kiss me, but they never confuse me with the Holy One.
I love your answer, Rabbi!
I try not to turn my back on the Torah during procession, I kiss it when it’s close, out of affection, as you do, without any thought for the favours or mishaps an object of idolatry might bring.
It is bonding with the history of the Jews, bowing to the Word, unifying the congregation…